Okeh 45227 – Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band – 1928

Though one of the most prolifically recorded Texas fiddlers prior to 1930, precious little has been chronicled of the life and times of Oscar Harper.  With ten issued sides (one not) to his credit, Harper ranked behind only Eck Robertson, Bernard Cartwright of the Cartwright Brothers, and Daniel H. Williams of the East Texas Serenaders, and tied with Samuel Peacock of Smith’s Garage Fiddle Band and “Red” Steeley of the Red Headed Fiddlers, for number of recordings behind his belt (assuming my tallies are accurate).

Oscar Hamilton Harper was born on February 10, 1888, most probably in Ashdown, Arkansas, very close to the Texas border (though in later years, he claimed to have been born in Texas, and may actually have), one of the ten children of Robert and Mary Ann Harper.  Having lived in the state for a time prior to Oscar’s birth, the Harpers returned to Texas in the last decade of the nineteenth century, settling in the region to the east and north of Dallas.  Oscar joined in his family’s work as farmers in his youth, and by 1910 was working as a hired hand on a farm in Rockwall, Texas.  The circumstances surrounding his introduction to the instrument are obscure, but he presumable took up fiddle playing at some time during his formative years.  In 1918, Harper was drafted into the U.S. Army, but did not see action overseas, and was discharged as a private less than a year later following the war’s end.  No less than two months after his discharge, he married Alline Daisy Gaskey on May 10, 1919, in Kaufman County and had at least six children.  By the 1920s, he had settled in Terrell, Texas, where he was known to play with fellow resident fiddlers by the likes of Ervin Solomon and Prince Albert Hunt.  Some suggest that Harper worked as a barber, but no records appear to corroborate this.  In March of 1928, Harper traveled with his nephew Doc and Prince Albert Hunt to San Antonio to record for the Okeh record company, who were conducting a field trip there.  With the duo of Oscar and Doc dubbed “Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band”, the session resulted in three sides and one released record, featuring two popular waltz numbers.  Some sources suggest that he also sat in on Prince Albert Hunt’s “Blues in a Bottle” record, waxed immediately after his session.  Harper’s two man string band made another disc in October of ’29 for Vocalion, and again recorded for Okeh the following month, this time billed simply as “Oscar and Doc Harper”, both times in Dallas.  Among the melodies he recorded at the latter session were the original Texas-flavored pieces “Terrell Texas Blues” and “Dallas Bound”.  By 1930, Harper had retired from farm labor and was working as a full-time musician on the radio and at local dances.  At one such function in February of 1942, Harper was recorded by John A. Lomax for the Library of Congress playing traditional fiddle tunes like “The Girl I Left Behind Me”, with a band including Prince Albert Hunt’s old associate Harmon Clem on guitar.  In the second half of the 1930s, the Harpers moved from their farm in Terrell to Dallas, residing at 1913 Gano Street (now the site of Dallas Heritage Village).  Oscar Harper died from complications of uremia in Dallas on February 5, 1952.

Okeh 45227 was recorded on March 8, 1927, in San Antonio, Texas.  Harper’s String Band is Oscar on the fiddle and Doc Harper on the guitar.  It was Harper’s best-selling record.

The rough-hewn, rather slipshod, yet entirely melodic character of Harper’s playing heard in his “Kelly Waltz”, punctuated by Doc’s strong guitar rhythm, exemplifies the sound of early Texas fiddle music.

Kelly Waltz, recorded March 8, 1928 by Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band.

The Harpers fiddle another upbeat waltz tune on the reverse: “Bouquet Waltz”.

Bouquet Waltz, recorded March 8, 1928 by Oscar Harper’s Texas String Band.

Okeh 8106 – Sippie Wallace – 1923

While Blind Lemon Jefferson is often identified as the Father of the Texas Blues for his pioneering recordings made in 1926, it is every bit as important to acknowledge the lady blues singers that blazed the trail before him, such as the “Texas Nightingale”, Houston’s own Sippie Wallace.

Sippie was born Beulah Bell Thomas on the Bell Bayou near Pine Bluff, Arkansas,  on November 1, 1898, one of the thirteen children of the musical family of George and Fanny Thomas.  The family moved to Houston, Texas, before the turn of the century (her birthplace is often cited as Houston, but the U.S. Census of 1900 suggests Arkansas).  She acquired the nickname Sippie in school because her “teeth were so far apart [she] had to sip everything.”  Her father was a deacon in the Shiloh Baptist Church, where she sang and played the organ.  On summer evenings, she would sneak away with some of her siblings to the tent shows, where she first met the blues, and where she first began singing it when one of the stars asked her to join the chorus.  Soon, she was traveling with the shows across the state.  Her older brother George W. Thomas gained note as a ragtime musician and composer in New Orleans (and whose daughter Hociel also sang the blues), and she moved there with her younger brother Hersal—also a pianist—to live with him in 1915.  There, in 1917, she met and later married Matt Wallace.  Like her contemporaries “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, she toured on the T.O.B.A. vaudeville circuit in the early 1920s, during which time she earned the sobriquet “The Texas Nightingale”.  She moved with her brothers to Chicago in 1923, and not long after made her recording debut for the Okeh record company.  That arrangement proved quite lucrative, and she recorded forty-four sides for the company between October of 1923 and May of 1927, some featuring star-studded accompaniments by the likes of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, and Clarence Williams, and many others backed by brother Hersal.  Subsequently, she recorded four sides for Victor in 1929, backed by some members of the Dixieland Jug Blowers and her own piano, of which only two made the cut.  She moved to Detroit in 1929, and following the deaths of both her husband and brother George in 1936, she turned from the blues to religion, becoming organist and choir director at the Leland Baptist Church.  She made one record with Albert Ammons’ Rhythm Kings for Mercury in 1945, reviving her old “Bedroom Blues”, but kept her back mostly to the blues until 1966, when her friend and fellow Texas blues singer Victoria Spivey convinced her to make a comeback.  Her return was met with success, and she toured the United States and Europe and recorded several albums, particularly influencing young musician Bonnie Raitt.  She was one of the last surviving classic female blues singers of the 1920s when she was incapacitated by a stroke in March of 1986.  Sippie Wallace died eight months later on her eighty-eighth birthday.

Okeh 8106 was recorded in October of 1923 in Chicago, Illinois.  It is Sippie Wallace’s first record and accounts for the entirety of her first recording session.  Wallace is accompanied on piano by Eddie Heywood, Sr.

“Shorty George Blues” was composed by Sippie’s brother George and niece Hociel.  Fellow Texans Lead Belly and James “Iron Head” Baker later recorded largely unrelelated folk songs under the same title, but the echoes of Wallace’s song can be heard throughout the country blues; the opening verse alone recycled in numerous other blues songs, such as Bo Weavil Jackson’s “You Can’t Keep No Brown”.

Shorty George Blues, recorded October 1923 by Sippie Wallace.

Another family affair, Wallace shares the composer’s credit with her brother George W. Thomas for her “Up the Country Blues”, drawing both lyrics and style from the country blues tradition not yet recorded at the time.

Up the Country Blues, recorded October 1923 by Sippie Wallace.

Okeh 4890 – Fiddlin’ John Carson – 1923

If there is a figure more deserving of the title of “Father of Country Music” than Jimmie Rodgers, one such contender is Fiddlin’ John Carson, who, while not the first to make records of what could be called “country music,” was undoubtedly one of the first to find great success doing it.

John William Carson was born in the north of Georgia—county of Cobb or Fannin—on the twenty-third of March, though there is dispute as to which year, probably 1874, though some sources suggest 1868 (earlier census documents, as well as his death certificate, agree with the later date, while later ones support the earlier year).  Before turning to life as a musician, Carson found work on the farm and railroad, as a jockey, making moonshine, and in an cotton mill.  In 1913, Carson participated in the first Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention, coming in fourth in the fiddling contest.  He went on to take home first prize from the Convention a total of seven times between 1914 and 1922, earning him the nickname “Fiddlin’ John”.  In the cradle days of radio broadcasting, Carson made his debut on the Atlanta Journal station WSB on September 9, 1922 to great public acclaim.  Soon after, he was noticed by Atlanta furniture dealer and Okeh record distributor Polk C. Brockman, who spotted Carson in a newsreel of a fidders’ convention, and persuaded Okeh record man Ralph S. Peer to record the fiddler.  On the fourteenth of June, 1923, Fiddlin’ John Carson made his first record at 24 Nassau Street (now 152 Nassau Street NW) in Atlanta, cutting only three sides, the first of which was unreleased and presumably destroyed.  Peer reportedly thought the two tunes were “plu-perfect awful,” but released the record nonetheless, and was surprised when sales took off like a skyrocket.  Whatever Peer’s personal taste, he was too smart to pass up a sure thing, and it was clear that the people wanted what Carson had to offer.  Before Carson’s recording career began, fiddlers Don Richardson and A.C. “Eck” Robertson had made records of “country” music, in 1914 and 1922 respectively, but both did so only sporadically and without enormous success.  Carson, on the other hand, began recording prolifically in the wake of his debut session.  Five months after cutting his first two sides, Fiddlin’ John traveled to New York City for another session, this time laying down a total of twelve sides, a number of which, like “You Will Never Miss Your Mother Till She’s Gone” and “Be Kind To a Man When He’s Down”, achieved considerable success.

Though far from the most skilled fiddler or talented singer, Carson appealed to record-buyers of the 1920s with his folksy manner and archaic sound that evoked memories of simpler times, which many longed for in the days of fast living, T-Model Fords, and New South industrialization.  Carson was also politically active within his state of Georgia, and used his music as a tool to further those ends, such as to promote the populist Democrat Tom Watson, or to condemn the accused Leo Frank for the 1913 murder of thirteen-year-old Mary Phagan.  He continued to record for Okeh until 1931, producing a total of 155 sides, of which all but seventeen were released.  Many of those featured his daughter Rosa Lee Carson, better known as Moonshine Kate, and band the Virginia Reelers.  Three years after concluding his engagement with Okeh, Carson went to Camden, New Jersey, to begin a new series of recordings for RCA Victor’s Bluebird label, an arrangement which only lasted but two consecutive sessions in February of 1934.  In those two marathon sessions, Carson, with Moonshine Kate, guitarist Bill Willard, and banjoist Marion “Peanut” Brown, recorded twenty-four sides, all of which but four were released, many of which were re-dos of his popular Okeh recordings.  Thereafter, he retired from professional musicianship.  In his later years he worked as an elevator operator in the state capitol of Georgia.  Fiddlin’ John Carson died in Atlanta on December 11, 1949.

Okeh 4890 was recorded around June 14, 1923, in Atlanta, Georgia.  These are takes “B” and “A”, respectively, both the earlier of two released takes of each side (only the latter of which are listed as issued in the DAHR).

Firstly we hear Carson’s history-making performance of the once-popular 1871 minstrel song by Will S. Hays: “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane”.

The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane, recorded c. June 14, 1923 by Fiddlin’ John Carson.

Nextly, Fiddlin’ John delivers an equally rustic performance of “The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow”.

The Old Hen Cackled and the Rooster’s Going to Crow, recorded c. June 14, 1923 by Fiddlin’ John Carson.

Okeh 45317 – W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith – 1929

One of the truly outstanding acts of old-time music was the fiddle and guitar duo of Narmour and Smith, who were quite comparable—both in style and ability—to the Stripling Brothers of Alabama, personally I’d even go so far as to venture that I might like these two better.

The pair was made up of William Thomas Narmour, the fiddler, and Shellie Walton Smith, who played the guitar.  Narmour was born on March 22, 1889 and Smith on November 28, 1895, both in Carroll County, Mississippi, where they spent most of their lives.  Narmour learned his craft as a boy, on a fiddle fashioned for him by his father—also a fiddler—from a cigar box.  He joined forces with Smith, his neighbor, to provide music at local functions.  When Smith was unavailable, Narmour sometimes with the local blues musician Mississippi John Hurt.  At a 1927 fiddle contest in Winona, Narmour and Smith were discovered by record dealer, talent scout, and veterinarian Dr. A.M. Bailey, who referred them to the Okeh company to cut a record.  Thus, they traveled some hundred miles north to Memphis, Tennessee, to record their first six sides on February 15, 1928.  Those first thee discs proved a considerable success, and so the duo returned to the recording microphone the following year, this time traveling a longer distance to Atlanta, Georgia.  That session resulted in one of the most successful “hillbilly” records of the time, a two-sider featuring “Charleston No. 1” and “Carroll County Blues”.  Its popularity was so that six months later Narmour and Smith took a train all the way to New York City, where they put down another eight tunes on two September days, plus an appearance on Okeh’s “Medicine Show”, a musical skit record much like those made by the Skillet Lickers.  They concluded their Okeh engagement in 1930, with two sessions in San Antonio, Texas.  After four years of recording silence, Narmour and Smith returned to Atlanta for one final marathon session, this time for Bluebird, who had also poached the talents of fellow old-time stars Fiddlin’ John Carson and Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers for their respective last recordings.  In all, the duo of W.T. Narmour and S.W. Smith left behind a recorded legacy of nearly fifty sides.  Both Narmour and Smith remained in their native Carroll County for the rest of their lives, living primarily as farmers, and later finding work at the local school as a bus driver and janitor, respectively.  Narmour also operated a garage in Avalon.  Willie Narmour died on March 24, 1961, two days after his seventy-second birthday.  Shell Smith followed him seven years later on August 28, 1968.

Okeh 45317 was recorded March 11, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia by W.T. Narmour and S.W. Smith, at their second session.  Narmour playing the fiddle, and Smith on guitar.  Unfortunately, this junk store copy is quite worn; both sides play fairly well for the first two-thirds or so, becoming quite crackly toward their ends (such that if I tried to clean them up, I’d surely lose my mind).  Nevertheless, both sides still put out a strong signal over the crackle.

“Charleston No. 1”, as its name would suggest, was the first in a series of “Charlestons” played by Narmour and Smith, up to “No. 3”.  They later re-recorded the three “Charlestons” for Bluebird in 1934 titled as “The New Charleston”.  The number is said to take its name from Charleston, Mississippi, rather than the popular dance or the likewise named cities in South Carolina or West Virginia.

Charleston No. 1, recorded March 11, 1929 by W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith.

Narmour and Smith’s famous “Carroll County Blues” is a sublime performance, a prime example of just how these two really could get right.  Like with the previous number, they later followed up “Carroll County Blues No. 2” and “No. 3”, and re-made all three for Bluebird as “New Carroll County Blues”.

Carroll County Blues, recorded March 11, 1929 by W.T. Narmour & S.W. Smith.

Okeh 8554 – “Mooch” Richardson – 1928

Like old Seth Richard, “Mooch” Richardson is one of the countless blues musicians whose life and times are shrouded in obscurity.  He showed up for two sessions while the Okeh company was in Memphis, producing a series of outstanding country blues recordings, then disappeared back into obscurity once they were complete.

Perhaps the only really concrete fact known about “Mooch” is that he was really James Richardson.  It has been supposed based upon his “Helena Blues”, that he hailed from Helena, Arkansas.  Historian Paul Oliver, in his Barrelhouse Blues: Location Recording and the Early Traditions of the Blues, suggested that Richardson was a pianist, based apparently upon his two-part recording of “‘Mooch’ Richardson’s Low Down Barrel House Blues”, and implying that Richardson played piano on those recordings (though he in fact did not).  In February of 1928, Richardson appeared at two consecutive sessions in Memphis for Okeh, resulting in a total of nine recordings, six of which were released.  He was backed by Lonnie Johnson either on the latter session or both, accounts differ.  Whether or not Richardson was a resident of Memphis is another unknown.  Those two record dates serve as the only hard evidence of “Mooch” Richardson, whatever became of him afterward is anyone’s guess (unless they’ve got access to better information than me).

Okeh 8554 was recorded on February 13, 1928 in Memphis, Tennessee.  There is question as to whether the guitar accompaniment is played by Richardson himself or by Lonnie Johnson; some sources state that Richardson accompanied himself on his first record date (which produced these two), and Johnson on his second, while others indicate that all of his recordings feature Johnson.  To my ear, while the guitar playing sounds a bit more “standard country blues” than Johnson’s usual style of playing—which tended to be heavy on bent notes and elaborate melodic single-string runs—it at the same time could indeed quite plausibly be him; certainly Johnson was a skilled enough musician to play in such a style.  The DAHR lists Lonnie Johnson on the first side and Richardson on the second, but both sound to be the same player, and if anything the “B” side sounds more like Johnson than the first.  The more I listen to it, the more I think it is Johnson.  It’s beautiful playing one way or the other.  Contributors to the 78 Quarterly suggested “twenty-five or more” extant copies, with this copy being one of the ones reported (at which time it was in the collection of George Paulus).

First up is the excellent “T and T Blues”, a mostly, if not entirely floating verse song drawing its name from the line “well it’s ‘T’ for Texas, lawd, I got a ‘T’ for Tennessee,” also heard in “Jim Jackson’s Kansas City Blues”, and famously in Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel”, as well as others, including Willie Brown’s “Future Blues”.

T and T Blues, recorded February 13, 1928 by “Mooch” Richardson.

Another floating verse song, Richardson next sings “‘Mooch’ Richardson’s Low Down Barrel House Blues Part 1”.  You gotta buy another record if you want to hear part two.

“Mooch” Richardson’s Low Down Barrel House Blues Part 1, recorded February 13, 1928 by “Mooch” Richardson.